One of the most iconic animals of southern Utah is the Utah Prairie Dog. The Utah Prairie Dog is about 10-14 inches long and loves the short grass and meadows of Utah. He is fat with a less broadly shaped head than the more common Black Tailed Prairie Dog. The Utah Prairie Dog’s fur is a mixed color of black and several shades of brown and reddish-brown. They have a short tail with a white tip and have a black stripe above each eye that looks something like a black eyebrow. The Prairie Dog is not in any manner related to the canine; but is a poerterly rodent who earned his name through his high-pitched barking sound that he uses as a means of warning his fellow Prairie Dog. The Utah Prairie Dog is the Prairie Dog that lives the closest to the Pacific Ocean- with most other types of Prairie Dogs residing in the Midwest.
The Utah Prairie Dog makes use of a rather elaborate tunnel system to build a sophisticated “Town” in which the entire society of Prairie Dogs will reside. At one point in history, these “Towns” would cover many square miles and would contain millions of inhabitants. Today, however, due to the settling of his historic ranges, the Utah Prairie Dog (or any species of Prairie Dog) is not seen in those numbers. The “towns” are the Utah Prairie Dogs shelter from weather as well as from such predators as coyotes, hawks, falcons and eagles. While the tunnels are an excellent means of escape from such predators as these, they are no help at all when it comes to an attack from a badger, a rattlesnake or a weasel. In order to keep the town safe from these predators, the Utah Prairie Dogs will take turns keeping a 24 hour watch. Whenever potential danger is spotted by the lookout, he will give his signature bark to warn the entire colony. Once the danger has been signaled, most of the Prairie Dogs will retret as best as they can into their burrows while a few others will go tease the predator by attempting to draw its attention from one prairie dog to another and keep him from focusing on any one victim in particular.
Unlike most Prairie Dogs, the Utah Prairie Dog hibernates in the winter. In early March (which is still plenty cold in Utah) the males will become active and towards the end of March the females will awaken from their hibernation as well. Early April is the Utah Prairie Dog’s mating season and about 28 days of pregnancy will bring about the birth of a litter of Utah Prairie Dogs consisting of 1-8 young. The young (called “pups”) will be fully grown by October and ready to have pups of their own when they are a year old.
The best place for you to see a Utah Prairie Dog is at Bryce Canyon, particularly at the Northern Border where one of their towns is. Be sure to keep your distance as the Utah Prairie Dog is a common carrier of the Plague. Not only could you contract the Plague from being bitten by a Utah Prairie Dog, but you could easily contract the Plague by being bitten by a flea that jumps off the Utah Prairie Dog and onto you (and these fleas can jump about 10 feet at once!). The Plague, along with human settlement, is the primary reason for the Prairie Dog’s reduction in population- and it naturally receives the disease from the fleas, which are given to the Pairie Dog many times by the Northern Grasshopper Mouse.
While visiting Zion or Bryce Canyon National Park, you will encounter many different species of wildlife if you rise early and walk quietly in more solitary locations. Some creatures, however, may be easily observed in the National Parks even if you are a loud-mouthed late riser (of which there are a whole lot when it comes to tourists.) Chipmunks are often such easily found creatures. You are almost guaranteed to see a chipmunk whenever you head out for a horseback trail ride here at Rising K Ranch, or on almost any hiking trail in Bryce Canyon or Zion.
The chipmunk that resides here in Utah is sometimes called the Least Chipmunk and is indeed aptly named, for he is only 3 ½ inches in the body with a 3 inch tail. He is small and quite slim and has stripes running down his head, sides, and back. The Least Chipmunk lives in all kinds of terrain, from the Sagebrush Deserts belows Zion National Park, all the way up through the Juniper-Pinyon Woodlands and the Coniferous Forests of both Zion and Bryce Canyon, and even up to the treeless tundra areas above Bryce Canyon National Park.
Just like many humans, when it comes to chipmunks it is usually the smallest ones who are the most active. The Least Chipmunk does at times climb up into a tree; but he is much more commonly found scurrying all over the ground from one fallen log to another, and if he is near a cabin, he will almost always be someplace inside the firewood stack! The Least Chipmunk hibernates through the winter and once awakened from its hibernation, seeks out a mate. Usually it is a month after awakening that the female is giving birth to a litter of as many as 7 young, which will stay with their mother for several months.
The Least Chipmunk will often vary in its exact coloring depending upon the terrain in which he lives. Chipmunks who live in a dense forest will usually be darker and somewhat more vibrant in their coloring while those who live in a Sagebrush Desert are usually more dull in their appearance.
I hope you will drop bu Rising K Ranch for a Utah horseback ride full of adventures and opportunity to see Zion's wildlife!
If you are visiting Zion or Bryce Canyon National Park and you see something flying through the forests at night- it just might be the Northern Flying Squirrel!
The Northern Flying Squirrel is 5-6 inches long in the body with a 3 ½ to 5 inch long tail. His fur is grayish brown on the back and is white below. He has little folds of skin between his front and hind legs, which he uses to glide from tree to tree. Since he loves the broad-leaved and mixed forests, the Northern Flying Squirrel is another animal that is more likely to be found near Bryce Canyon National Park than Zion National Park.
Rather than truly flying, the Northern Flying Squirrel is able to use the folds of skin between his legs to glide for a usual distance of 20-30 feet. In order to begin his glide, the flying squirrel simply leaps from the tree and spreads his legs. He then controls his glide by moving his legs, using his tail as a sort of a rudder. Immediately after landing on another tree, the Flying Squirrel will often scramble to the farther side of the tree as a means to avoid any owls who may have witnessed his glide and, for all he knows at the time, might be close on his gliding heels! Unlike all other American squirrels, the Flying Squirrel is nocturnal (which of course is the reason he is so concerned with owls.)
The Red Squirrel is a noisy little squirrel, often using a loud, harsh, strident call as a means of announcing the presence of an intruder. The Red Squirrel is easily identified by his rusty red colored fur above with whiter fur below. He is a little smaller than the Gray Squirrel and has a somewhat less bushy tail. He is usually about 7 ½-8 ½ inches long in the body with a 4-6 inch tail.
While you will find several ground squirrels and chipmunks inside Zion National Park, the Red Squirrel is more likely to be found in the higher elevations of Bryce Canyon National Park with its mountainous forests and more abundant Ponderosa Pine. This is not to say that you will not find him in Zion at all- especially in places where tourists are known to sit down for lunch!
Like many animals, the Red Squirrel is most active in the short hour or two just after sunrise and just before sunset. Much of a Red Squirrel’s summer day is spent in cutting down pine cones and caching them in a private log or burrow. During the winter, the seeds found within these cached pine cones will serve as their nourishment. The Red Squirrel is also known to feast on various mushrooms that would be quite fatal to humans. Along with pine seeds and poisonous mushrooms, the Red Squirrel also feasts daily upon tree sap, buds, and sometimes even bird eggs and nestlings. These Red Squirrels are themselves an important source of food to many birds of prey.
Like many rodents, they are known to carry many deadly diseases, so even though they may be cute it is wise to resist the urge to pet them. A bite from a rodent is much more to be feared than a Mountain Lion. If you see a Red Squirrel on your visit to Utah’s National Parks, be sure to keep at arm’s length (or even longer.)
Some animals seem to have found a way to be a pest all over the world- animals such as cockroaches, flies, and mosquitoes. In this case, it is the Norway Rat, which is also called a Street Rat, Common Rat, Brown Rat and many other names. Originally from Asia rather than Norway, this rat reached the colonies in America by way of European ships right around the time our Founding Fathers were writing the Declaration of Independence; and they also reached a small Alaskan island called Hawadax Island back in 1780 due to a Japanese shipwreck (the rats wreaked havoc upon Alaska’s ecosystem and the small island was not rat-free until June of 2009.)
The Norway Rat can easily be identified as it is simply a Common Rat. It has a body of 7-10 inches, a nearly hairless, scaly tail of 5 ½- 8 inches, and has coarse, brown fur. The Norway Rat is known to have an average of 5 litters per year with each litter containing 8-10 young.
While the Norway Rat does, to a small degree, reside in the National Parks such as Bryce Canyon and Zion, you are much more likely to see him in a large city, for whenever possible they prefer to dwell in an urban environment where it often contaminates food and spreads various diseases. Its favorite residences are buildings, wharves and dumps.
The Bushy-Tailed Woodrat, with a body length of 7-10 inches and a tail length of 5-7 ½ inches, has a tail that is quite bushy considering it is a rat, pale, reddish-gray to black fur above and white fur below, prefers to live in rocky areas and in coniferous forests. With this type of habitat preference, both Zion National Park as well as Bryce Canyon National Park are great locations for the Bushy-Tailed Woodrat.
More commonly known as a “packrat”, the Bushy-Tailed Woodrat is well-known for his habit of making unilateral barters with mankind. Anything a Bushy-Tailed Woodrat might take from an unsuspecting camper is often replaced with another item such as a twig. In truth, the Bushy-Tailed Woodrat is not seeking to make a trade, nut is simply dropping whatever he may be carrying at the time in order to take home the man-made trinket, especially if it is something shiny such as a banjo pick or a coin. In some way or another, the rat will incorporate this new trinket into his stick-and-bone nest.
Ord’s Kangaroo Rat is most commonly seen hopping across a road at night, especially in a dry sandy area such as you might find near Zion National Park. Since they love to be in a desert climate, you are much more likely to find an Ord’s Kangaroo Rat in Zion than in Bryce Canyon National Park. With a 4 inch Head and a 6 inch tail and two extraordinarily large hind feet, the Ord’s Kangaroo Rat is the most common of the kangaroo rats and has been observed leaping over two feet at one bound, sometimes even changing directions in midair! They are a light brown above and white underneath, with a long, striped, tufted tail and have tiny ears and a light patch behind each eye.
Not only are the Ord’s Kangaroo Rats able to jump quite well, but they also are noteworthy for their ability to stuff seeds into an external cheek pouch (that is, the cheek pouch is on the outside of their cheeks) and carry them into burrows to be stored for a later date.
The Ord’s Kangaroo Rat uses burrows as a means of shelter during the daylight hours and are nocturnal. They almost never drink water, but receive their hydration from the digestion of their food.
The Ord’s Kangaroo Rat receives its name from its Latin name: Dipodomys ordii
The House Mouse, common throughout all of North America, is sure enough common to both Zion as well as Bryce Canyon National Parks. Dull, grayish brown in color, the House Mouse is 3-3 ½ inches long in the body and has a long, scaly tail of about 3-4 inches.
Most often found around buildings, this uninvited guest survives on all manner of man-made things- not only foods such as bread crumbs and crackers, but even on things like soap and glue. When it comes to nest-building, the House Mouse is known to help himself to anything he can find, from newspapers to pillow feathers and any other soft thing.
Considered a pest species, the House Mouse does not originate in North America, but comes from Asia and reached the New World in the 1500’s stowed away in the cargo of European ships. They breed at an enormous rate, bearing up to 8 litters each year, with as many as a dozen young in a single litter. Though they due not hibernate, they typically will not bred in the colder months if they are living in an area that does get much of a cold winter. Zion and Bryce Canyon National Park both qualify as having such colder winters (especially Bryce Canyon.)
Due to their many predators, the House Mouse rarely lives longer than a year; though in captivity they can live up to 3 years.
If you visit Rising K Ranch to take one of our horseback rides, you will be sure to meet at least a few of our many outdoor farm cats roaming around. The House Mouse is their primary food and is also the primary reason we have the cats on our ranch.
The Deer Mouse lives all over North America, and is plentiful in both Zion as well as Bryce Canyon National Parks. Some have said that it would require quite a lively imagination to see much similarity between a deer mouse and an actual deer; with the only blatantly obvious similarity being the pattern of the fur which is dark brown above and light below (though they can be quite diverse in their coloring.) I do believe, however, that it may also be called the “Deer Mouse” because of its general thriving all across the continent, even as deer thrive. The Deer Mouse is about 3-4 inches long in the body with a 2-5 inch tail.
Rather than seasonal changes, the Deer Mouse’s breeding season is more directly determined by the availability of food (though this, of course, is very often affected by the changes of seasons.) They use many kinds of plants and grasses to build nests and often use the nest, not only to raise their young, but also to huddle together with other adult mice for warmth. The typical female Deer Mouse will bear 3-4 litters per year, with each litter having as many as 9 young (though usually 3-5 young.) This makes the Deer Mouse one of the most rapidly breeding mammals in North America.
In the winter, the Deer Mouse, which is quite social and does not hibernate, huddles together to keep warm in bundles of over a dozen mice together. Since they do not hibernate, they survive on seeds which they have stored. Like many mice, the Deer Mouse is nocturnal and usually finds a place to rest during the day such as a building, log, burrow, or even a bird’s nest. Because of the great diversity of their climate, and the fact that there are over 50 subspecies, it is rather difficult to determine their life-span. However, it does seem that the usual life span for a Deer Mouse in the wild is less than one year (though they have lived up to 8 years in a lab.)
The Western Jumping Mouse, somewhat like the Kangaroo Rat, has larger hind feet and smaller forefeet, which gives him a greater ability to spring into the air, using its extremely long tail for balance. Though he has only a 3 inch body, he has a 5-6 inch tail and has been seen jumping distances in excess of 5 feet! His coloring is quite plain, being dark grey or brown above and pale beneath, with coarse fur. Since he prefers a somewhat more humid climate in the mountains and meadows, the Western Jumping Mouse is more likely to be found in Bryce Canyon than Zion National Park. He prefers to live close to a source of fresh water and loves dense vegetation and plenty of aspen trees.
Most of the Western Jumping Mouse’s diet consists of seeds from various types of grass and herbs, though he will not turn down the occasional insect. A close observer of nature can always tell where a Weatern Jumping Mouse has been feeding by the tiny runways that are left as well as the grass stems whose seeds have been harvested and the tiny grass clippings that will be upon the ground. The nests will be built primarily from such grass clippings and are usually found underneath a log or inside a tussock.
As you might expect, the Western Jumping Mouse is nocturnal, which makes its primary enemies owls, weasels, racoons, skunks and bobcats. Its primary method of escape from such predators is its ability to make a series of zigzagging jumps across the meadows and fields until it finds a safe shelter. They are active only in the summer months, hibernating for as long as 8-10 months depending on the year and the exact location. Though they do awake about once each month during their long hibernation, they do not cache their food as you might expect, but rely solely on their fat reserves built up during the few months of summer. Unlike many mice, the Western Jumping Mouse does not make use of a burrow for daily shelter during its active summer months; but only uses a burrow for the purpose of hibernation.
Usually the Western Jumping Mouse only breeds once per year, about a week after awaking from hibernation, and bears a litter of 4-8, with a gestation period of 18 days. Their life span is about 3-4 years, and most Western Jumping Mice (roughly 60%) wait a full year before reproducing.